…that’s what I’ve been growing this year – fragrance-filled, cottage garden style, colourful bouquets. Back in the spring, with all those reports of declining pollinator populations in the news, I decided it was time to grow even more flowers than usual. And, liking the plants in my garden to work hard to earn their keep, feeding the local bees, butterflies and hoverflies by planting a cut flower patch that would produce bucketfuls of blooms seemed like a good idea.
It all started really with the #britishflowers hour. In February I wrote about a horticultural revolution taking place in flower fields up and down the country. British-grown blooms being picked, bunched and sold by a new wave of flower farmers. At the centre of this movement was #britishflowers hour on Twitter, a weekly get together allowing like-minded farmers, gardeners and florists to discuss a whole range of flowery topics. In spring I was just an ex-cut flower grower, having given up on them a few years ago, but I watched with interest and occasionally joined the chat. It was inevitable that all the talk of which flowers to grow, the best ways to combat pests and how to market those beautiful bouquets encouraged me to think about growing cut flowers again. And by choosing flowers full of nectar and pollen to attract bees and other insects into the garden, I could be cutting beautiful bouquets and doing my bit for nature at the same time. So began the summer of bee-friendly bouquets. Now that the schools are back after the long holiday, and the mince pies are on sale in the supermarket (no really, they are…), it seems like a good time to take a look back at what worked, what wasn’t quite as successful as I’d hoped and what to grow next year in the cutting patch.
The flower season was late in starting this year, delayed by the long, cold winter. But by May the weather was starting to warm up, and the end of the month saw the first of the year’s cut flowers. To supplement the seeds I already had, I’d ordered a mixture of hardy and half-hardy annuals from The Higgledy Garden seed shop – trying to pick a range that would flower all through the summer. Early on there were blue and black cornflowers, purple phacelia, bright blue borage, yellow and white daisy-like flowers of feverfew and bright orange calendula. Soon afterwards there were the first sweet peas too, adding elegance and fragrance to the bouquets. The only flowers I was disappointed with was the candytuft – the stems just weren’t long enough for cutting… so next year they’re out of the flower patch, although I might still grow them in the borders just for their looks.
While these first flowers were great to get going, I’d like the 2014 flower season start a little earlier – which will mean getting organised over the next few weeks. The whole cut flower idea was put together at the beginning of the year, too late to be planting bulbs for spring flowers or making an autumn sowing of hardy annuals. This is the first thing that will be improved on… I’m going to be planting tulips, alliums, camassia in the next couple of months. And for earlier blooms and sturdier plants, I’ll be sowing a good sprinkling of cornflowers, scabious, calendula and salvia in modules to grow on in the greenhouse over winter, along with lots of sweet peas sown into tall pots or root trainers.
The summer months saw it really coming together – lots of flowers, bumblebees and butterflies in the garden. There were blues, pinks, purples, yellows and whites – a whole palate of colours and delicate scents to work with. The long, hot days meant that the flowers were going over quicker, and deadheading became a daily, and delicate task with the plants full of bees. But picking bunches of fresh flowers on warm evenings was never a chore.
As late summer approached, the hardy annuals were starting to fade a little. There were still plenty of flowers on the plants, but the stems were getting shorter making them less useful for cutting. Moving into full production and taking over from the fading hardy annuals, the later flowering half-hardy annuals have now come into their own. In place of sweet peas and cornflowers, the cut flower bunches are full of sunflowers, cosmos and rudbeckias. The cosmos especially are growing full steam, and I’m using both the flowers and the foliage. I’ve grown mainly the single, white-flowered cosmos ‘Purity’, but for next summer there will be a bigger range of colours – there are some lovely shades of pink available.
I made an experimental mid-summer sowing of cornflowers, salvia and borage, to see if the successional sowing approach I use for salad leaves and annual herbs worked with flowers too. And it has, the later sown plants are just starting to produce a few flowers, although I could have done with them just a little sooner. So there’s a note in the diary to make that sowing a bit earlier, and to try a bigger range of hardy annuals.
What I’ll definitely be planting for the end of the season next year will be dahlias… more dahlias. I grew dahlia ‘Bishop’s Children’ from seed this summer – only a few because I wasn’t convinced they would attract much wildlife. After seeing the gorgeous array of dahlias growing just down the road in the garden at The Dutch House, I’m now sold on these late summer beauties – the butterflies are all over the flowers, and I’ve counted up to six bumblebees at a time feeding on a single bloom of dahlia ‘Princess’. I’ll be looking for a range of colours, all with single blooms, and good long stems for cutting. Any suggestions for suitable varieties would be warmly welcomed – I’m still very much a novice when it comes to dahlia growing.
Overall, I think I got lucky and picked a good year to start a bee friendly bouquet project. The long, warm and mostly dry summer has been good for the bees and butterflies, as well as the flowers. It will be interesting to see if next year’s new, improved cutting patch, with a longer flower season and bigger range of blooms does as good a job of attracting the local wildlife… Oh, and if you have ideas, recommendations or suggestions for more ways to get my cut flower garden buzzing then I’d love to hear them.
P.S. If you’re looking to support the British flower revolution by buying British but aren’t sure where to shop for them, there’s a handy list of growers and suppliers at the Flowers from the Farm website.